“Lulu, say a prayer,” Matthew Fiorillo tells his 2 1/2-year-old goldendoodle. Hearing the command, Lulu, a therapy dog who comforts mourners at Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services in Westchester County, N.Y., puts her paws up onto the kneeler and tilts her head down.
“She’s an added source of comfort,” says Fiorillo, who owns the business. “She has a calming presence. She’s a social dog who loves people and has great instincts. She’ll curl up into a ball and lay down next to an older person, or jump around with kids. She especially helps the children, since not all of them understand death.”
The idea of having a therapy dog in his funeral practice came to Fiorillo in 2013 after a storm hit New York and he found himself stuck, like many others, in the Miami airport, unable to get home. “I was really stressed-out, and I saw a woman traveling with her dog, a white Maltese,” he recalls. The dog seemed almost out of place in the midst of a terminal of angry people, he says. “It was simply the dog’s presence that was a subtle distraction from everyone’s stress. As she walked by, I felt this wave of calm following her. It was really powerful. As she walked past, it snapped me out of my stress.”
Fiorillo says Lulu, who was bred and trained in Florida by a breeder who also taught her the praying trick, joined him when she was a year old. She goes to work with him every day (except Wednesday, her day off.). She wears a vest, imprinted with the funeral home’s logo, that says “Pet me, I’m friendly.”
“When the vest goes on, she’s in comfort mode. She’ll be, like, ‘Somebody needs me, let’s go,’ ” Fiorillo says. “When the vest comes off, she’s just a playful puppy.”
When she’s not “working,” she’s like any other family pet. “When we come home, I throw the ball,” he says. “We decompress together from the day. It’s a different atmosphere when we are home. I don’t want her to burn out. On the weekends, if I don’t go to work, she’s home with me.”
At the funeral home, she emerges only when a mourner requests her, he says – and most do. She’s listed on the funeral home’s website as a staff member, and there is a video of her. She is also featured on the company’s Facebook page.
“Every family that comes in knows about her,” he says. “They always ask, ‘Is Lulu here?’ or ‘I have a grandchild coming in who’s having a hard time.’ . . . You can tell if someone isn’t a dog person, and that’s only happened once or twice. If they aren’t dog people, she doesn’t come out.”
Also, she poses no problem for people with allergies, because she is hypoallergenic. “She’s like a big walking stuffed animal,” Fiorillo says.